5 out of 10
Dwayne Johnson as Bob Stone
Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber
Central Intelligence Review:
For Calvin Joyner (Hart), high school was the best years of his life; all the years since have been a slow deflation. Fast forward twenty years and he has a job which isn’t working out for him, a marriage hitting troubled waters, and a high school reunion he’s desperate to avoid.
It’s a turn out of type for Hart, who made a name for himself playing larger-than-life characters who brag their way into and out of awkward situations, and he makes a lot out of it. When Central Intelligence does work it usually comes from forcing its leads out of their comfort zones. It only manages that in fits and starts, unfortunately; much like Calvin himself, it peaks early and never lives up to its potential.
That may be because it has only has one big idea to coast on – casting its main characters against type and watching the strange sparks fly – and no idea what else to do. While Hart restrains himself to shrieking in fear and trying to get out of the absurdity he finds himself in, Dwayne Johnson gets to take on the big role, in every meaning of the phrase.
While Calvin was settling into an ordinary middle class life, Robert Weirdic (Johnson) was transforming himself from a flabby prank target into a muscled one man army named Bob Stone out to save the world. For all of his secret agent skills, Bob is an oversized man-child more engaged with his love of unicorns, the films of Molly Ringwald and Patrick Swayze and his hero worship of Calvin than in anything like an adult life.
Johnson grabs onto the part with gusto and is certainly the best reason to see the film, but a little Bob goes a very long way – with his wide stare and constant exclamations he eventually starts to sound like he’s doing a Christopher Lloyd impression. Johnson puts a lot of energy into the part but can’t hide the fact that he’s basically a one-note joke.
As interesting as it is to see Hart and Johnson try to do something other than their normal line and poke fun at themselves in the process, no one making the film can seem to come up with anything else. We’re the Millers director Rawson Thurber (re-writing a script from “The Mindy Project” scribes Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen) quickly reverts to the standard for stand-up driven comedies: getting the main characters to their marks and stopping the film dead so they can mug for five minutes.
Eddie Murphy was probably the last comedian good enough to get away with that and he’s not able to do it well anymore. It’s a cheap method of getting a laugh, which usually requires the comedian’s skill to get over weak material, draws attention to itself and requires usually-excellent actors like Amy Ryan to stand around and listen while one of the stars tries and fails to make fart noises.
Central Intelligence (and by extension similar films) is much funnier when it just allows situational comedy to develop – like a CIA officer (Griffin) accidentally sitting on the man next to him or a curious airport guard and his pet snake – than when it tries to force said into being. It’s a style particularly suited for stand-ups turned actors and it’s telling that Johnson is the more successful character in part because he doesn’t have to do it.
Situational comedy would benefit the plot much better as well. With its spy and action-comedy background, Central Intelligence is as plot-focused as any action movie and forced character moments (such as forcing a plane crash to get Calvin to admit he does really want children) kills momentum.
And there is little to distract from such problems as production value is not up to the standards of the action movie Central Intelligence is facing. Johnson versus Steve Carrel in the big-budget Get Smart looks positively realistic compared with most of the big action beats in his newest film. Thurber gets the job done – some of the jokes are excellent and it’s well-cast, particularly the supporting roles like Jason Bateman’s obnoxious former schoolmate – but it’s as uninspired as you might imagine. The Thurber who made Millers and Dodgeball is nowhere to be found here.
There’s nothing terribly incompetent about Central Intelligence but nothing particularly interesting about it either. Playing Hart and Johnson a bit against type is a good idea and when the film does work, it’s because of that choice. But if the stand-up focused comedy formula has been altered just enough to get a little more than usual out of it, that can’t hide the fact it is still a formula. Thurber, and much of his cast, has done better elsewhere; Central Intelligence is only interested in playing it safe and no amount of actor switch-ups can fix that.